Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

When The Work Is Not Even

December 5, 2005

A farm woman wrote about the stress she experiences because the other family in a farm partnership does not do their fair share. It is a problem that occurs all too often in family farming operations.

"My husband and his brother (eight years younger) have been farming together for over 16 years. The problem is the brother gets equal pay and falls short on his end of the workload. It's nothing for him to quit at 4 p.m. and go away for the rest of the day. His wife and children don't do a thing. I could write a book on the stunts they've pulled. They don't seem to see or care that the work gets done as long as the paycheck is always there.

"My husband will not say anything. I'm fed up covering for his brother and so are our two children. We desperately need things changed around here. I would like for us to farm alone (costly in terms of dollar signs but so is the cost to our lives the way it is) or to have them shape up and pull their own weight. I don't want to hurt anyone. I don't know how to approach the matter. What suggestions do you have for our family?"

Step One: Get on the same page. Confronting a brother about his work behavior may be a difficult task for someone raised in a family where conflict wasn't dealt with openly or was avoided at all costs. Also your husband may be having difficulty sorting out his loyalties between his family of origin and his own family.

It appears that these issues and also the issue of his passive control of the marital relationship have been simmering for a long time. The first step you may consider taking is getting professional marriage counseling to improve your communications and unity prior to embarking on either of the alternatives described below.

Step Two: Establish a family business meeting. Business communication requires healthy conflict, good problem solving and communication abilities. Honesty and open conflict are needed to keep the business creative and equitable. A family business meeting format separates family concerns from business issues.

The family business meeting provides the mechanism for discussing sticky issues such as long term goals, methods, workstyle differences, equity considerations, differences in business philosophy, management responsibilities and clarification of roles.

Every family, indeed every individual, has a vested interest. It is normal and natural. The family business meeting reconciles the various interests in a spirit of compromise and coordination so that, in the long run, everyone's interests are considered and respected.

The basic decision-making premise for the family business meeting is, "What is best for the business?" or "The best idea wins." Families and individuals can accept decisions and discussions coming out of this format as fair if they perceive that logic is being applied uniformly and consistently over time. Out of these discussions usually comes an awareness of the need for coordination and for everyone to do their job.

When there is no obvious moderator within the family, it may be important to invite a trusted third party who can facilitate communications and help negotiate emotional issues. A family member can be trained to moderate an effective meeting.

Step Three: Split apart the operation. It is a draining and destructive experience to be in a business where there are inequities that can't be corrected. If someone is selfish, lazy, uncommitted, addicted, rigid, or when there is great disparity in contribution, it takes a toll on everyone’s motivation and hurts the profitability of the operation.

Another issue that endangers a working relationship is when capable and strong-minded people are committed to different goals or to different methods for achieving those goals. It is difficult to foresee these problems in advance when partnerships are formed early and then people or circumstances change.

Even if the brothers or the families get along famously, problems usually arise when the cousins become old enough to enter the business. It is one thing to tolerate a brother but another to put up with a nephew. Family goals and styles differ too much at this point for an easy integration into one working unit.

Most farm families have found that it is a natural time to split up their farming operations. Planning for a split needs to be a part of the long term plan for the farm. The decision to separate preserves long term family harmony when the present arrangement drives people apart.

When inequities and differences are addressed, the bonds between family members can remain strong and positive instead of eroding into feelings of resentment and bitterness. It takes commitment, trust, and willingness to confront these problems instead of avoiding the issue and living with silent but very real frustrations.